By David Song, January 16 2020 —
The Dinos women’s rugby team has been one of the most consistent programs in the nation over the past few years, with a U Sports bronze medal in 2016 and three consecutive Canada West titles from 2016 to 2018. That streak of regional dominance came to an end in 2019, where the Dinos lost the Canada West Final to the UBC Thunderbirds by a score of 12-26.
“We had lost a lot of players to injury from the summer in club season and during [our] season, so we didn’t necessarily hit the start of the season at full stride,” said head coach Simon Chi. “At the same time, we have a really, really talented group of young players that are coming in. It was a matter of transitioning them and getting them up to speed.”
A close 17-18 loss to the University of Victoria Vikes in the second game of the year proved a harbinger of things to come. While the Dinos would finish the regular season on a four-game win streak and outlast the Lethbridge Pronghorns 8-7 in the Canada West Final Four, the Thunderbirds’ resilient and relentless attack would prove too much to handle, forcing Calgary to settle for Canada West silver.
Third-year back row Alyson MacDougall feels that a 6-4 record is not indicative of the growth her team experienced. “Last year, [people] weren’t necessarily getting excited for practice. This year, it seemed like everybody was there to have fun. We were really working together as a unit, and we really enjoyed each other’s company.”
“It was incredible how easily some girls fit into the team,” added fourth-year centre Emma Newton. “We didn’t have the success we wanted, which is okay because I can see next year being a huge step up. I thought our team cohesion this year was a lot better and I truly enjoyed playing with all the girls.”
The Dinos will need that newfound locker room chemistry to build in order to face their next test — the annual B2ten rugby 7s tournaments in January. With only seven players per side instead of fifteen — and 14 minutes of play time instead of 80 — rugby 7s is a much faster-paced game style that emphasizes speed, fitness and quick decision-making. Instead of methodically taking the ball into contact, 7s players need to think on their feet and keep things moving at all times.
“The cardio is insane,” Newton remarked. “You have to do everything very quickly because you do not have time to waste. In 15s, you can get the ball, run into contact and slowly progress like that. In 7s, you can go into contact, but you have to be a lot more efficient with your skills and what you’re doing with them.”
Rugby players face a quick — and oftentimes difficult — turnaround going into B2ten. With injuries and experiences to process from the fifteens season, and end-of-year school-work to face, the bulk of sevens practice takes place in early January, right after Christmas. Discipline and personal accountability are vital to anyone who intends to play both 15s and 7s.
“You let the athletes know they’ve got a short turnaround,” Chi spoke about the preparation process. “The expectation is that they’ll do the work in the gym over the holidays. We have a large veteran group coming back, so we’ll probably lean on them for the first tournament.”
“Preparing for 15s, we really focus on our strength and power, especially in the pack,” MacDougall explained. “In 7s, I’m personally going to focus more on my speed and my endurance so that I can make sure that I’m lasting those 14 minutes. You have to be able to go a hundred percent the entire time.”
The B2ten tournament series is a relatively new addition to Canadian varsity rugby, having been introduced during the 2016-2017 season. That year, the Dinos won the inaugural event with a lineup that featured larger, heavier front-row players — unusual for the spacious and fast-moving game of 7s. As personnel have changed, the team has gone to more of a traditional roster where backs and back-row players like MacDougall and Newton feature heavily.
The Dinos have been consistent threats in B2ten, just as they have been in fifteens. Chi expects his squad to replicate that past success, but knows it won’t be easy.
“We’ve finished in the top three every year, so we’re definitely in the mix. I think this group, [based on] natural ability, can definitely do well in 7s, but we’re very inexperienced,” he said. “So we’ve got some work to do.”
The upcoming 7s campaign will be the swan song for a number of key senior players, including Newton and perennial All-Canadian prop Kasselle Menin. The Menin family in particular, comprising Kasselle and her older sisters Jade and DaLeaka, have changed the Dinos program for the better — not only with their skills but also their work ethic and leadership.
Despite these imminent and significant departures, Newton believes that the Dinos have more than enough potential in the wings.
“It might sound cliché, but I do believe this year was a big growing year. We have a lot of girls leaving, but I have absolutely no doubt that the girls who have come are not going to have any issue picking up in leadership roles, playing time and skills.”